Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Messiah lives in Tel Aviv

Over my Sukkot break I noticed an interesting parallel between my two "homes," New York and Israel. The parallel is rather abstract, so I'll paint you a picture...

It's Saturday afternoon. My cousin Shelly and I take a bus into Tel Aviv, the "big city" of Israel to shop, dine, and sight-see. We people-watch through the restaurant window, Shawarma in hand, debating the job of the woman with the leather studded jacket and Bob Marley sweat pants. It almost reminds me of New York for a minute, until I see him.

Long brown hair, shirtless, white linen pants, a red shiny cape. He sits with his legs crossed at Magen David Square, holding sign that boldly proclaims that he is, indeed, the Messiah.

Almost immediately, the eccentric character reminds me of a more well known figure who brings music and manhood to New York City's Time Square--the Naked Cowboy. Although I have yet to take a picture with him, It's impossible to miss him every time I walk down 42nd street.

So you have these two eccentric hunky men, one in Manhattan and one in Israel. So what?

Well, oddly enough, I found that these two men reveal a bit about the bustling metropolis' they inhabit. The Cowboy promotes liberty, freedom, self expression--all core American values. So, it only makes sense the the eccentric of Tel Aviv claims to be a holy, religious figure.

Although both New York and Tel Aviv have diversity and allow for freedom of self expression, the core difference that is religion manifests itself countless ways. It's the little things like the self-proclaimed Messiah that remind me I am in a Jewish country--even when I'm in Tel Aviv, the most urbanized part of Israel.

For me, this is why I can have two "homes." New York is the place I have grown up with--I love the skyscrapers, the diversity, the smells of every kind of cuisine imaginable. But a part of me will always see Israel as my "homeland"--the place where it is politically correct to say Shabbat Shalom on Friday nights and Chag Sameach on Rosh Hashana.

It's the sense of Jewish unity (that I so often refer to in these entries) that keeps bringing me back to Israel. And so I am here for the sixth time, smack in the middle of the desert where my ancestors were thousands of years ago.

Back at home, It wasn't easy for me to find this sense of belonging. Here, it's impossible not to. It's all around me. Looking into the desert is like looking directly into history--and it somehow amazes me more and more each day.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Jerusalem, if I forget you...

Shalom everyone!

I know it's been a few days, but I'm back!
Last night I returned from an incredible weekend in Jerusalem, where I spent my Yom Kippur break. The weekend actually turned out to be quite different than I planned, due to a series of coincidences that could only occur in Israel.

My spontaneous shift in plans is truly a testament toJewish unity in Israel. Only in Jerusalem would I run into more than five people I know from home who aren't even on Year Course. I hadn't even dropped off my backpack before I saw two friends from my small elementary school, a few from middle school, and countless others. One of my friends from way back (Rachel, from my first blog post, who is in Section 1 of Year Course) invited me to stay with her at her apartment--and thus the plans changed. Originally the plan was to stay with my roommates' grandmother and a few other YC kids, but I figured I'd spend one night with a friend who I hardly see. And we ate Shawarma, Max Brenners gelato, and listened to street performers down the infamous Ben Yehuda street. Undeniably, a holy experience.

The next day we woke up just in time to grab a sandwich from Bagel Bites before they closed for Yom Kippur. It's pretty amazing how the entire city shuts down for the holiday. Even way before sundown most stores were closed, street lights were off, and there wasn't a car to be seen driving on the street.

For the dinner before the fast we all brought a dish to the neighboring balcony and had a Kosher, pot-luck style meal. It was a nice way to meet people from other sections and exchange stories about our respective locations. The nice thing about the Jerusalem apartments is that they are filled with (basically) only Year Course kids, whereas the Arad apartments are spread out. I'm definitely glad, however, that I'm starting in the dessert and moving into the city--I feel like the transition is smoother, and I'm sure I'll be sick of the heat fairly soon.

After the dinner, on our walk to temple, we literally sat in the middle of the road because we could. (Don't worry Mom, not dangerous!) Just walking around the city got me so excited to be there in a few months. Although I love Arad, there is truly nothing like Jerusalem. For instance, while walking down the hill to temple, I overlooked the old city just as the sun was setting, marking Shabbat and the start of Yom Kippur. Kids were kicking a ball around in the middle of the street, and most of the adults were dressed in white, making their way to one of the many temple's in town.

When we got to temple we originally couldn't find a seat, let alone a Siddur. By some stroke of luck a few of the assigned seats were vacant, so Rachel and I ended up being led to the front row! Although we were still Siddur-less, being up close to the Bimah on Yom Kippur was enough for us.

The next morning I woke up around ten and headed off to Musaf services at the same temple, Shira Chadasha. The whole experience was new, and a bit surreal for me. I had grown used to listening to my Mom's voice inside the familiar walls of Habonim, the Temple where she leads high holiday services at in Manhattan. I am used to sitting in the first row, knowing all of the prayers and their melodies. Suddenly I am in the holy city in a crowded temple, overheating in my sweater, and completely baffled by the unknown sounds. Granted, I found it difficult to have an immediate connection with the prayers. It only finally hit me when, at the end of Neilah, the entire room sang Hashana Haba Be Yerushalayim, which translates to Next Year in Jerusalem. A chill ran through my body upon this realization--I am in the holiest city on the holiest day for the Jewish people. Everything sort of made sense to me at that moment...and being in Jerusalem couldn't have felt more right.

As we were let out of temple my friends and I ate (or attacked, rather) the celebratory sugar crackers I packed in my purse. I don't know if a cracker has ever tasted so good. Though it didn't quite take the edge off my hunger, I wasn't suffering too much. For some reason, fasting this year wasn't so horrible at all. I was light headed for some of the afternoon, but other than that It was a Tzom Kal, or an easy fast.

Our break fast (not breakfast!) wasn't anything fancy; in fact it consisted of pizza, soup croutons, and Ben+Jerry's chocolate fudge brownie ice cream. Basically, whatever was around in Rachel's apartment, we ate. The meal was short, sweet, and everything I needed to satisfy my grumbling stomach.

Later that evening my friend Joel and I ran to catch the second to last bus out of Jerusalem. Finding the stop was a bit of a struggle (mainly because the cab took us to the wrong place) and we had to sprint to make it. Anyone who knows me knows that I'm used to this--running to catch public transportation, that is. Anyway, we made it, and that's what matters.

On the ride back to Arad I learned a lot about Year Course and Young Judaea. My friend Joel is basically the president of the entire Young Judaea movement in America--so of course, he filled me in on the insider drama and history of the program. Hearing all of his stories makes me wish I had been a part of Young Judaea as a child. I think I would have really liked the sense of community that Young Judaea provides teens with, and of course, the connection to Israel.

I finally got back to Arad around midnight; well rested, atoned, and ready to be back.
The next morning I went straight back to volunteering. I'm really starting to love the kids at Beit Mazor, the home where I volunteer. And we just got two more kids! Their names are Ron and Leor, which means there are now two Leor's and a Leora. A tad confusing at times, but it's cute.

Well, I should go because I have Hebrew class soon. Today's our first test, so I should start studying the gigantic list of vocabulary :/ Hope it goes well!

Sending love to everyone in the states :)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Druze Pita


I have good news and bad news.
Bad news: daylight savings has messed with my head, and deprived me an hour of sleep.
Good news: I now have some extra time to blog!

It is 9:00 AM and I am finally back home in Arad. It actually felt good to come back to the apartment last night, back to my friends, back to home base.

I've done some pretty fun things since my last post, which I believe was Rosh Hashana eve dinner....

Well, the next day I slept in for a bit and then took a stroll with my Saba and Yona around her little village called Ramot Hashavim--it's a beautiful community (north of Tel Aviv) of nice houses, a tennis court, two pools, synagogue, and event center. On our walk we happened to stumble upon a sculpture art exhibition. It was cool because all of the work was done by people who live in the village, so everyone there knows everyone.

All of us then headed back to Yona's for lunch (including Shaked). We hadn't made any solid plans for the day so I accepted Shaked's invitation to hang out at her house for a bit. I helped her cut things out for the 25th anniversary surprise party she and her brother Ashel planned for their parents--the whole thing is so adorable. They planned a scavenger hunt for them which ends with a fancy dinner on the beach. To top it off, the night ends in a play, I think Fiddler on the Roof. I told Shaked and Ashel that I hope to have kids like them someday.

After some cutting, glueing, and spray painting we put on our beged yam (bathing suits) and got in the car to meet her family at a beach. They were planning to stay overnight so the beach was about an hour we got there around 5 pm.
I wish we had arrived earlier because the beach was MAGNIFICENT. I wish I could remember the name of it. The sand felt like flour between my toes and the water was warm and soothing.
I swam for a bit, but couldn't stay in long because we had to cook dinner. It felt like camping on the beach. I decided that's my new favorite thing because you have the whole tent, grill, campfire thing but you also have the water, sand, and no insects or muddy shoes.

So we ate (delicious kebabs), talked, relaxed, and watched the sun set on the beach. The whole afternoon was lovely--I felt like I was part of the family even though they aren't even related by marriage. Oh well, we all love each other and thats what counts.

After we left the beach (around 830) we got home, Shaked borrowed my dress for a party, and I went to bed pretty early.

I woke up to find out that my Saba had planned a day trip! The three of us (Saba, Yona, and myself) drove for about an hour up to Carmel to explore a Druze villiage. Ok quick history lesson: The Druze people practice an offshoot of Islam and live in Israel, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. They are Israeli citizens, they serve in the army, and are rather mysterious. They are also known for their tasty handmade pita which I HAD to sample. We had lunch there (shawarma, my favorite) and explored the main street which reminded me of a large street fair in china town. Lots of shops with the same stuff, but all still very interesting.

We had a good time but it was getting too hot and crowded to stay long. We got home, slept some more, and had delicious gelato. I've never napped or eaten as much as I did on this short vacation. Totally indulgent, and....amazing.

We said our goodbyes and then Saba and I drove back to Rishon before Sundown. I was exhausted from the day, so when I got home all I wanted to do was plop down on the couch and watch a movie. Waterboy was on TV, a classic, and then after that was Pay it Forward, another classic. By 12:00 I was out.

The next day was what you would define as a lazy day, minus a long walk around my Saba's neighborhood, Rishon. The walk was pretty interesting...snagged a few cool photos of the neighborhood, petted a few local cats (I know, I'm gross), and chatted with the gramps. Although Rishon has it's slummy parts, I kind of like it. It's old and unique and the pretty flowers give life to the monochromatic buildings.

By 83o I was in a taxi on my way to the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv. I was planning on taking a "minibus" there, but two nice Philippine women offered to split a cab. It was a bit scary traveling alone at first in a still unfamiliar place at night. But, I put my headphones in, took a deep breath, and I was calm. Oh, the power of music.

At the platform there were at least 20 Young Judaeans, so I regained my sense of security. Headed on the crowded bus to Arad, got home, and went out even before I unpacked. I still haven't unpacked actually, but I need to go to volunteering in ten I better run.

Love to all!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Happy New Year

Shana Tova!

To all of my non Hebrew speaking followers, this means Happy New Year :)

Well, so far, my Jewish New Year has been more than just happy--it's been wonderful. I don't even know where to begin! Ill guess I'll backtrack a few days...

So I have officially been a volunteer at the foster home for three days, and I couldn't be happier with my placement. The past two visits I actually painted their front inside door! It was a dull shade of brown, so they entrusted me with a few brushes, a few paints, and voila, it became a painting. It was the perfect job for me. Working with kids, AND painting? It doesn't get much better than that.

Alon, the owner, told me to make the door look friendly and kid-like. At first I wasn't sure what to do, so he gave me some advice. Here's a description of the final product: a house on a hill with a red roof, a big bright sun, flowers, and clouds, birds, and an Azure blue sky. It isn't exactly a Van Gogh piece, but I had a lot of fun doing it. And thankfully, the owners are happy with it too--they already gave me another painting project! It's definitely a lot of work, but it's fun work. At one point white I was painting Alon put on American music from the sixties, my personal favorite. I was jamming, painting, and even singing along a bit. Pure bliss.

Speaking of bliss, we all got our bikes the other day! It's the most liberating thing, being (sort of) mobile in an unknown city. I was able to bike to the pre-Rosh Hashana party the foster home hosted for all of the kids and volunteers. The ride was mostly uphill, and hot, but I made it. And I really needed the exercise because I have yet to find a pilates class in the middle of the desert. As a result, I have promised my roomates to lead weekly yoga/pilates sessions to keep us all in shape. They don't call it the Year Course 35 for no reason. The chocolate spread, hummus, and pita is unavoidable.

Anyway, the pre-New Year party was fun, though I couldn't stay long because I had an apartment meeting to get back to. After the meeting I cooked for the first time! My roommate Alexis and I made a Quinoa and Pasta chicken soup/ Stew. It turned out really delicious. I really love living with people on a limited spending stipend because it forces us to be creative in the kitchen...which we truly have been. Also, my friend bought a Panini maker, which pretty much explains why I love her so.

After dinner we went out again, got very little sleep (what else is new) and got up at the crack of dawn to catch an 8:20 bus to Tel Aviv. It took my roommate 3 attempts to wake me up this morning--it just wasn't happening. So when my friend Maya asked if I was ready to leave while I went to brush my teeth, I was a bit frazzled. I packed in literally two minutes, and thankfully I made the bus. I sat next to a Russian woman to spoke about as much Hebrew as I do, so our conversation was interesting. She kept asking me whether I thought Obama was a practicing Muslim. I repeatedly said "no" and then proceeded to sleep the rest of the ride.

I got to the HUGE station in Tel Aviv (it's pretty much a mall) and was a little overwhelmed to say the least. But, I finally got on a second bus to Ben Yehuda street and found the familiar face I was looking for, my Grandpa, Saba Uri. In case you don't know, Saba means Grandpa in Hebrew. We had a lovely afternoon--he made me delicious meal, I napped, showered, and then headed to his girlfriend's newly redone house for Rosh Hashana dinner. The house is MAGNIFICENT. High ceilings, marble everywhere. It was nice seeing people I haven't seen in a while, including my (sort of) cousin Shaked. She is my age and we have A LOT in common. We talked the entire night, and she may take me out with her friends tomorrow! All tentative plans of course, but I think it would be really fun. Now do you see why I love Jewish holidays? Endless amounts of food, shmoozing, and relaxation.

Well, that's about it for now. Time for some real sleep. Finally.

Liyla Tov and Shana Tova

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Neighborhood Catz


Well, a lot has happened since my last post. I've been trying to Blog every day, but something always goes wrong--internet fail, time management fail, laziness fail. So, of course, at 12:50 in the morning, I begin writing. It's ok, I've given up on sleep.

So the other day (Thursday) we all went to Ein Gedi...we started the day with a short hike and then swam in the beautiful, clear, waterfall pool. Felt amazing after living in apartments, in the desert, with NO AC. (Did I mention that earlier?) My fan has become my best friend.

Anywho, then we left Ein gedi and drove to Yam Hamelach, the Dead Sea. I didn't stay in for too long because I discovered some evil cuts I didn't know about, so the water stung a bit. But I rinsed off, got a passion fruit slushy, and it was all better :)

So, as if the day couldn't get any longer, we all got changed and sluggishly plopped on the bus to head to Jerusalem for the Year Course opening ceremony. After a two hour bus ride we arrived in the holiest of holies and met up with the other sections. I got to see a few friends from home, toured a BEAUTIFUL Jerusalem apartment (which got me excited for next trimester), ate falafel, listened to music, and watched the Year Course video. The whole scene was incredible--the video was streamed live on Young Judaea's website (you can check it out!, then click opening ceremony) and according to everyone, I was the "star" (lol) of the video because of my multiple cameo's and interviews at the end. I sound pretty ridiculous in the interviews but oh well. My Mom got nachas (a yiddish term I really can't translate in English) from watching me in it.

After the ceremony we got on the bus, and sat for what was supposed to be a two hour ride, right?
Two hours turned into four when our bus got in a small accident with TWO other cars. And I saw the entire thing happen! I was sleeping and woke up to two loud bumps on the bus door. I was too tired to even pay attention to the accident so I literally fell back asleep for the entirety of the ride...although I did see the bus driver step outside to smoke a cigarette directly after the accident. Typical Israelis.

Well we got home at 3 am, but thankfully we got to sleep in until 10 the next day.
Hooray for Shabbat!

The following day was my first shabbat on Year Course. Usually Shabbat is open, meaning you heave the weekends free, but the first one was was spent with the group to get us acclimated to Shabbat on Year Course in Arad.

I chose to attend a Conservative service, which was pleasant and short. I truly feel different when I pray in Israel. It feels so much more meaningful to me, being so connected to my religion and my roots. After the service we split into groups and all had dinner with a host family...and I got really really lucky! I ended up with two of my american friends and a British boy at the Freeman household. The dinner was delicious, and we were able to speak english because the father is originally from America.

You'd think America is a pretty big place. And even the Jewish community is pretty big in America. But of course, God puts me in the home of two teenagers who attended Solomon Schechter Westchester from 2006-2009. Turns out I was a classmate with the daughter, and just missed their son (who graduated middle school the year I came). The rest of the evening was spent laughing over the countless people we know in common, and the teachers who we loved to hate. If I learned anything this past Shabbat, I learned (or affirmed) that the world is, indeed, a very small place.

Ok, moving on.

Later that night I went out again, got home at 4 AM, was asleep by 5 and woke up by 9. Thankfully I was able to nap for two and a half hours that afternoon, something I never could do back in the States. I like that Shabbat here is all about relaxing and doing what makes you comfortable...its really great!

AHH sorry I talk so much. Ill move on to today. Well, today was exciting! It was my first day of volunteering, and I got the best placement! I'm going to be working with kids at a foster home...ages ranging from 7 months (my sisters age, exactly) to 18 and a half (old than me!) All of the kids are SO adorable. The parents/ owners of the house told me to speak to them in English, so they can learn, and the kids will respond in Hebrew, so I can learn. It works out pretty well, until I ramble in English and they have no clue what I'm talking about. One little girl is named Leor (almost my name) and she is the cutest 5 year old alive...she knows how to count in English and also knows the colors--she's a smart one.

After volunteering I sketched outside a bit, napped, and went to dinner at our friend's apartment. We ate, listened to music, chilled--all the good stuff!

ps. There are SO many cats here. Everywhere. I love it. My friends and I have started calling each other the neighborhood cats (in hebrew of course), because we think its funny? Hence the title.

Now I am FINALLY going to sleep...after I attempt to upload some pictures onto the blog.
Wish me luck.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Entering the Desert

Hey guys! Sorry this is my first time writing since arriving in Israel, it’s been sooo busy. So much has happened already, so I’ll give a brief description of everything…well I’ll do my best.

The first 24 hours of my departure I had conflicting emotions—stress, anxiety, excitement. I pulled an extremely difficult all nighter on August 28th, said my final goodbye to my boyfriend, and then headed to the airport with my Mom, Dad, and Stepdad, Alan. Can't say it was an easy goodbye, but I knew it wasn't going to be. Finally got to JFK and was relieved to see that neither of my massive bags weighed over fifty pounds! I tried so hard to take out clothes—I kept packing, repacking, and packing some more the day before until they were finally both 49 pounds each. Thank God.

At the airport it was nice seeing a familiar face—my kindergarten bud Rachel. Unfortunately she’s in a different section of my program, along with most of the people on my flight. I’m in section three, which is what I requested! It has the best order of locations; first three months in the Negev (desert), then winter in Jerusalem, and lastly, summer in Bat Yam (near the beautiful beaches of Tel Aviv). The airplane ride was fairly uneventful; slept for the first few hours, had a long conversation with the person sitting next to me (who I met at orientation) and drew a bit with my new handy notebook/color pencils, given to me by my wonderful Grandmother, Sonia.

Ten short hours later we landed in Israel. Everyone clapped—It was clear that the entire plane was excited to be in Israel…and that’s just how it is. The ruach (spirit) is just ONE of the many things I love about this country.

After getting to Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv, we picked up our colossal bags, loaded them onto the bus, and headed due south towards Arad. When we got to our apartments, I met my roommate, Tali. We instantly clicked…and even though we were stranded, just us, in the apartment for seven hours, we managed to talk, joke around, watch a movie, and attempt to unpack.

I also love all of my other roommates. Turns out I’m the only non-“Judaean” of the apartment (I wasn’t involved in Young Judaea throughout my life) so I was the “newbie” of the group. At first I felt a bit detached from the whole Jewish camp thing, but now I hardly even notice. They all seem funny, approachable, and willing to teach me everything there is to know about Young Judaea.

Our apartment bonding really solidified yesterday when we ventured to the Arad Mall to tackle our first grocery shop. Strangely enough, it was a thrilling experience. Finding the cheapest items, the right vegetables, and the most useful groceries is game that requires skill, attention to detail, and decent knowledge of Hebrew (something I’m going to work on during the next 9 months!)

Later that evening we cooked dinner and then headed out to a local bar called “Muzas,” one of two bars in the entire city. Our entire section was there, so it was fun AND legal ;)

Although Arad is dry, HOT, and rather desolate, I find it beautiful and peaceful—a nice break from reality, and from the hustle and bustle of the city.

Unfortunately I’ve got to run to yet another orientation session, but I’ll be back soon with updates on my new life in the desert.

Ps. There was a suspicious object right outside my apartment today so the police blew it up. Tali and I were so scared we were in tears, but apparently it’s a safety measure that happens all the time?

Only in Israel….